Africa, Arabs Rise for Rights, Development & Aid, Headlines, Middle East & North Africa, Population

TUNISIA: War Strangles Livelihoods on the Border

Simba Russeau

BEN GUERDANE, Aug 13 2011 (IPS) - Tunisia’s border with Libya has been a major lifeline, keeping residents in Ben Guerdane economically afloat – so when the vital trade route is blocked by the municipality or by protestors, tempers flare.

Located some 580 kilometres southeast of the capital Tunis, the Ras Ajdir border crossing – linking the small coastal town of Ben Guerdane to the Libyan capital Tripoli – was closed in early March due to fears that conflict rather than goods would be exported across Tunisia’s border.

“When the war started it hit us hard because many companies shut down so family members who worked in Libya lost their jobs and returned home,” Montassar, a local merchant who trades across the border, told IPS.

“Libya imported a lot of merchandise from Turkey and China. Tunisian merchants were able to make profit by reselling those goods they purchased in Tripoli on the Tunisian market at very cheap prices,” Montassar said. “Closing the border meant another source of income had dried up but luckily things have definitely improved since then.”

Before Libya’s civil war erupted, more than 10,000 Libyans and Tunisians accessed the Ras Ajdir border crossing daily – generating an annual profit of nearly 2.5 billion dollars through reciprocal trade. The border is a major transport hub for fuel, food and goods.

“Driving taxis all day long for very little money is all there is at the moment in terms of work,” Fathi, a mini taxi driver, told IPS. “At least trade with Libya has returned to normal because at the beginning of the war many of us suffered financially.”

“I need three dinar from each of you,” Fathi told his three passengers. “But before we head off I need to wait for one more person so that I can at least make some profit.”

Already in the car were two Tunisian street vendors. Many street vendors have flocked to the Shousha refugee camp to set up a mini souk on the side of the road in front of the sprawling tent city to sell tea, sandwiches, non-food items and cigarettes to the camp inhabitants. The third passenger was a Catholic priest from France.

In late May, just as business seemed to be picking up, inhabitants of the nearby Shousha refugee camp blocked the flow of traffic on the main highway in protest over their slow resettlement process.

The move sparked outrage among local Tunisian residents who retaliated by attacking the camp with gunfire, knives and iron clubs. Reportedly, at least six refugees were killed, dozens wounded, and nearly half of the camp was destroyed.

“Several cars pulled up to the camp filled with hundreds of Tunisians who started attacking women, men and children, robbing their belongings, shooting and burning the tents,” 20-year-old refugee Mowahab Abdullah Noor told IPS. “Many of my relatives were injured and one was killed.”

“At one point 20 Tunisian men started attacking one Eritrean man with knives and rocks until they killed him. During this time I was collecting all the children to get them out of the sun and to safety, and at some point I tried to go to get milk for them because they started crying from hunger, but a Tunisian man attacked me with a knife,” Noor said.

“The people no longer trust the military because we witnessed some men removing their military uniforms and putting on civilian clothes and attacking people.”

“Can you blame us?” Fathi asks. “Many businesses, taxi drivers and hotels lost money that day. It wasn’t right for them to block the road because our livelihoods are tied to that border… I don’t understand why they would do this. They have a place to sleep and food to eat. What more do they want?”

Despite a recent spike in cross-border trade, due to a rising Libyan demand for fuel and basic food commodities, local residents have called for several demonstrations in the past month over the lack of development, alternative employment opportunities, and fears that future border closings could threaten their economic stability.

Three weeks ago, shop owners staged a general strike by shutting their doors for one day and submitted a petition with their demands to the municipality’s headquarters. One of the demands was for the local governor to resign.

“Everyday our hotel is filled with Libyans who stay in town for one or two nights so there has been some level of economic growth,” Abdel Nasser, the receptionist at Hotel Edhiafa here, told IPS. “However, I ask the new government in Tunis to build factories and create a variety of jobs for young people in Ben Guerdane because we want to achieve the goals of our revolution.”

Republish | | Print |

Related Tags